Transgender Studies: Individual choice or cultural structure
Updated: Jun 2
by Kathleen Lowrey
Kathleen Lowrey is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alberta. She began following trans issues when they intersected with her primary field of research, lowland South American anthropology. She was one of the first academics in Canada to be “cancelled” in response to her gender critical views.
Social scientists sometimes use the phrase “the structure/agency problem” to shorthand the perennial question of whether a particular outcome is the product of cultural, social, and historical structures or individual choices. Speaking very broadly, one could say liberal feminists put a little more emphasis on agency (the idea that women choose sex work, for example) and radical feminists put a little more emphasis on structure (the idea that prostitution exists within a larger context of capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy and exploits women, youths, and children). The structural framing has produced powerfully illuminating explanatory frameworks like “rape culture” and “structural injustice.” Nevertheless, preferentially looking to structural explanations cultivates habits of thought that are in some ways unhelpful at the present historical juncture.
The rapid and essentially unquestioned rise of trans ideology in academia is one example, though I think the pattern in question has negative impacts in other arenas as well. As many radical feminists have eloquently pointed out, trans activists have appropriated the rhetoric of feminist struggle and much of the actual history of gay and lesbian liberation movements. Trans activists have done this despite the fact that trans ideology comprises elements that are misogynist and homophobic, conceptually and, far more worryingly, in application.
Because trans activists use a familiar language of structural injustice (that is to say, by speaking in terms of civil rights, public access, and social discrimination), many academics have been reflexively supportive of their claims. But even skeptical analyses focus mostly on structural explanations. What is it about this moment in history that has produced such an incredible upswell in trans identification? Is it consumerist self-fashioning? Is it capitalist exploitation of the medicalized body? Is it the individualist search for meaning in an age of anomie? Is it globalization? Is it the internet?
With trans activism, we might do well to pay slightly less attention to structures, and quite a bit more to agents. Structures don’t organize repeated shutdowns of gender-critical blogs like GenderTrender, or, in a matter of days, accomplish the censoring of documentaries about transing children on the CBC, or endow university chairs. Particular agents do that stuff. Men, mostly.
As an academic, there are several things I notice about that endowment. Sociologist Aaron Devor, the first holder of the chair endowed by American transwoman billionaire Jennifer Pritzker, spent a decade prior to that appointment as a university administrator. There is a real tension in contemporary public universities between rank and file faculty, who generally believe that the mission of public universities is most realizable using public funding, and administrators, who are generally eager to attract funds from private donors. Earmarked donations to pursue particular research agendas raise troubling questions about academic freedom and investigative independence. In 2002, McGill University turned down funding for an endowed chair to be dedicated to the study of Ayn Rand’s philosophy; in 2008, the University of Texas at Austin created such a chair with funding from a different corporate donor. Many academics (myself included) saw this development as part of the sad downward slide of the unfettered public university, supported by public funding and devoted to the public interest.
More broadly, it is immediately obvious why students and faculty at the University of Calgary were horrified to learn of President Elizabeth Cannon’s toadying to corporate donor Enbridge and rightly worried about whether oil and gas industry funding to research on topics like fracking will produce robustly replicable data (to put it mildly).
But a chair funded by an American billionaire with a deeply personal interest in trans ideology comes in for no such critical consideration; in fact, Aaron Devor is the 2017 recipient of the Canadian Association of University Teachers’ Equity Award. I don’t expect that an Asian STEM professor holding a chair endowed by Enbridge and doing research on fracking is going to win next time, though as it happens Asian STEM profs have quietly done quite a bit to dismantle fantasies of white supremacy over the years.
Of course, while public funding during (say) the Cold War era may have been more lavish, it was often earmarked to promote imperialistic agendas on everything from designing weapons systems to subverting peasant movements in the Global South. Academics are well prepared to write about such “structural” dynamics and have documented and critiqued them at length. But exactly this intellectual habit of looking for “structural” interpretations (capitalism, the state, patriarchy, compulsory heterosexuality) leaves us ill-prepared to comprehend key aspects of the present moment. Donor-driven agendas can very rapidly attain ascendancy in the cash-strapped, administrator-driven contemporary university; when they self-fashion, as is the case with trans ideology, as instances of “structural injustice,” too many academic observers don’t stop to look for agents.
This is a very big mistake. Trends in global inequality mean, increasingly, that a tiny number of individuals hold a tremendous share of the world’s wealth. This is, perversely, a structural situation in which it makes a lot of sense to pay attention to individuals: rich ones, that is. The disproportionate influence of Silicon Valley gajillionaires in trans activism deserves almost infinitely more attention than it has hitherto received.
But the pattern is general: as “the public” gets poorer, there is less and less public money available for public universities. As a result, administrators pursue high net worth donors more and more assiduously, and so the servicing of idiosyncratic research agendas (such as transgender studies or Objectivism studies) inevitably proliferates. Julie Bindel has done wonderful work, for example, on why “sex work is work” is now the dominant academic viewpoint, and the degree to which advocacy for the adoption of that view has been funded by the sex industry.
Turning to my own experience, just paying a bit of attention to the way that whatever the latest fad in higher education “innovation” is being promoted by my own university’s administration is being promoted at the exact same time with the exact same claims to cutting-edge originality by administrators at the universities at which friends and colleagues work across North America has been very clarifying. Almost inevitably these fads lead back to either the Lumina Foundation or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Recently, Bill Gates was surpassed as the highest net worth individual in the world by Jeff Bezos (of Amazon). You guessed it: the Bezos Family Foundation focuses on education. At the higher ed level, they are really interested in “youth leadership.” And would you believe it? “Leadership” has become kind of a buzzword at universities lately. Funny that.
Structural analysis simply won’t reveal the full story of what’s going on right now and in many respects may actually obscure it.
Two final points. First: methodologically, the kind of work that needs to be done to understand these dynamics is more traditionally journalistic than traditionally scholarly. This division of labour (and a certain amount of accompanying academic snootiness about it — that is to say, journalists looked at particularities, while academics sought the big structural picture) worked okay for much of the twentieth century. Traditional investigative journalism, however, is itself practically defunded these days (Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, for the record) and academics (the tenured ones anyway) are some of the only citizens left who have the salary and job security to try and pick up some of the slack. Damningly for the academy, however, to date it has been non-academic bloggers doing almost all the necessary gumshoeing.
Second: it’s at the very least interesting that we are nowadays constantly exhorted to be on guard against “conspiracy theories,” which are in large part defined as trying to track particular outcomes back to particular individuals and particular relationships; or, to put it another way, as paying too much attention to agents rather than concentrating, as a Serious Person Ought, on structures. Here’s the thing, though: “structures” don’t harass bloggers, they don’t organize censorship campaigns, and they don’t endow research chairs. Rich and powerful men do.
This article originally appeared in Feminist Current January 3, 2018. Shortly after, Lowrey was dismissed from her position as undergraduate programs chair in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alberta in response to student objections to her gender critical views.
Carolyn Sale wrote a blog post about this for the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University. In her post she criticized the University for violating the principle of academic freedom. https://cfe.ryerson.ca/blog/2020/06/academic-freedom-and-perceptions-harm
Kathleen Lowrey has recently published a new article in which she reflects back on these events and speculates about why her main detractors seem to be other women in academia. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10508-021-01950-9